The Grapes of Wrath

US (1940)

129 min, No rating, Black & White

CineBooks’ Motion Picture Guide Review: 5.0 stars out of 5

The Grapes of Wrath is not only one of John Ford’s greatest films, it documents an American social tragedy, giving the victims a voice through art. Based on the classic John Steinbeck novel, the film recounts the painful, poignant odyssey of the Joad family, Steinbeck’s Depression-era tenant farmers from Dust Bowl Oklahoma, whose story has come to represent the plight of the "Okies" for generations of readers—and, through Ford’s masterpiece, generations of moviegoers too. Indeed, viewing Ford’s film today, more than fifty years after the Depression and the catastrophe of the Dust Bowl, one realizes just how flawless and wonderful The Grapes of Wrath is, its characters and drama just as moving and sympathetic as when it was first released.

Synopsis

Devastated survivors: As the film opens, Tom (Henry Fonda), eldest of the Joad sons, hitchhikes home to the family farm through the desolate Oklahoma landscape, having completed a four-year prison term for manslaughter. After getting a short ride from a suspicious trucker, Tom hoofs it to a clearing where he meets the slightly mad Casey (John Carradine), a former preacher who "has lost the call" and no longer ministers to the spiritual needs of the local farmers. The two walk to the Joad farm but find it abandoned except for Muley (John Qualen), who is even more mentally unbalanced than Casey and is hiding in the house. Muley tells them that sheriff’s deputies working for banks and farming combines have been looking for him ever since he knocked one of them unconscious. He relates in fearful detail the story of how he and his family were driven off their farm by tractors that crushed his ramshackle house, his protests that he and his people were born (and in some cases died) on that land having fallen on deaf ears. Muley tells Tom that the Joad family, too, has moved on, having likewise become victims of foreclosure.

Going west: After hearing Muley’s story, Tom and Casey head for the farm of Tom’s Uncle John (Frank Darien), where all the Joads have gathered, preparing to head westward to California in search of jobs advertised in a handbill Pa Joad (Russell Simpson) received. Ma (Jane Darwell) joyously greets her eldest son, and the next morning the whole family (12 people) piles into a broken-down truck overloaded with their belongings and sets out in search of a better future. Before leaving, Ma, alone in the clapboard farmhouse, holds an ancient pair of earrings to her ears in the dim light and remembers her youth. Then, clutching her few meager possessions, she emerges to say she’s ready—a scene that movingly conveys both the pain and courage of the Oklahomans’ migration.

The rattling truck lurches forward, creaking and groaning, its radiator soon steaming. Though young Winfield (Darryl Hickman) and Ruth (Shirley Mills) view the trip as a grand adventure, it’s torture for Grandpa and Grandma (Charley Grapewin and Zeffie Tilbury), and the elderly man soon dies. Fearful of being detained by authorities with only $150 to sustain them, the family simply buries him along the road. Casey delivers a brief eulogy, and Tom leaves a note in a bottle by the grave: "This here is William James Joad, died of a stroke, old, old man. His folks buried him because they got no money to pay for funerals. Nobody kilt him. Just a stroke and he died."

Stopping at a campsite, the Joads hear people returning from California tell not of the rewards of the Promised Land, but of the horrors of life in the migrant farm communities. Thousands of Okies have flocked to California for the 800 jobs offered in the handbills, only to be paid slave wages on which they can barely survive. Having nowhere else to go, however, the Joads continue west along Route 66, joining the mass exodus from the Dust Bowl-ravaged lands. En route, tragedy strikes again when grandma dies in Ma’s arms. Afraid that agricultural inspectors will turn the family back if she makes the death known, Ma does not even tell the family about it until after they have crossed the desert in the middle of the night and entered California.

Broken promise land: Once in California, the Joads move from one miserable campsite to another, working as migrant laborers. They are cheated out of their meager wages by unscrupulous landowners, whose club-toting goons treat them like cattle and work them to exhaustion in the orchards, and everywhere the migrants are starving. (In one moving scene, Ma gives the remains of her pot of stew to some hungry children whose plight is particularly disturbing.) The exploited migrants do scab labor without understanding what the strikes their work breaks are about: "What’s these Reds anyway?" Tom asks. Attempts to fight the system are violently put down.

At one camp, as a labor organizer flees from some deputies who have come to arrest him, one of the deputies shoots and kills a woman in the course of pursuing him. Tom knocks the killer senseless to prevent him from getting off another shot, but Casey takes the blame for the deed and is led away smiling. Later, Tom finds Casey—whose character is a sort of Christ figure; his initials are "JC"—in a hidden camp outside one of the large farms. He convinces Tom that the workers must stand up to the landowners to get a fair wage; then deputies raid the encampment, and one clubs Casey to death. Tom kills the assailant with his own club in turn, but receives a scarring cut on his left cheek in the melee. With Tom now wanted by the police, the Joads go on the run, finally finding safe haven and clean living conditions in a government-sponsored camp.

Nearby farmers give the family work for good wages; for the first time since their arduous journey began, they meet with decency in their employers, and their prospects of survival improve. A local farmer tips off the camp dwellers that thugs are planning to break up a dance in camp, allowing the migrants to foil the invaders. More serious trouble brews, however, when investigators looking for a young man with a scarred left cheek arrive. Warned about them, Tom takes leave of his family in the middle of the night, telling only Ma of his departure.

We’re the people: In the powerful scene of their farewell, Tom goes to Ma, waking her, taking her outside to tell her he’s leaving in the middle of the night so he won’t cause the family more trouble. He tells her that Casey has opened his eyes that "he was like a lantern. He helped me to see things, too." He intends to organize the workers "for a better way of life." Ma asks where he will be and Tom replies: "Well, maybe it’s like Casey says. Fella ain’t got a soul of his own. Just a little piece of a big soul. One big soul that belongs to everybody… I’ll be around in the dark—I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look—wherever there's a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beating up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry, and they know supper’s ready, and when people are eatin’ the stuff they raised, and livin’ in the houses they built, I’ll be there, too." Tom kisses his mother, even though, she admits "we ain’t the kissin’ kind," then leaves, much the way he had appeared, unexpectedly and with hope.

The family is later shown on the road again. As Ma and Pa ride along, Ma becomes introspective. She is the real rock upon which the family has built its trust and she looks to the future with gritty determination, saying to Pa: "Rich fellers come up. They die. Their kids ain’t no good and they die out. But we keep a-comin’. We’re the people that live. Can’t wipe us out. Can’t lick us. We’ll go on forever, ’cause we’re the people!" With these stirring words The Grapes of Wrath comes to an end, one of the most powerful documents ever put to film.

Critique

Emotionally gripping: In adapting Steinbeck’s lengthy work, Nunnally Johnson’s admirable script simplified the story (already well-suited for filming) and eliminated its rough language while still retaining the basic characters and themes. The result, under Ford’s authoritative hand, is a film that presents a powerful message without sermonizing. Ford’s visualization of Steinbeck’s novel is so emotionally gripping that viewers have little time to collect themselves from one powerful scene to the next.

Shooting mainly in California in the migrant camps around Pomona, with a second unit filming some backgrounds in Oklahoma, the director framed his shots to show vast, almost barren landscapes, overcast skies, and bleak exteriors, giving a pervasive sense of the harshness of the displaced Okies’ lives. From the first scene, in which Tom is introduced as a tiny figure walking down a seemingly endless road, the roads and shack-littered countryside dominate. Ford employed Gregg Toland, the greatest cinematographer of his day and a pioneer in deep focus photography, to help achieve this ambience.

More than victims: This deliberate sense of doom is dispelled, however, with the film’s optimistic turn after the Joads find the government camp and its guardian (Grant Mitchell), a benevolent figure representing security, who, not coincidentally, bears a resemblance to Franklin D. Roosevelt. Though Ford does not hesitate to show the banks and the companies which took advantage of the farmers as land-grabbers without conscience, he also turns the Okies’ bleak tale into one of hope by showing the Joads to be more than victims. Physically displaced, but not emotionally or spiritually defeated, they come to embody faith in the future and in the American people, and therein lies the film’s greatness.

Background

Career performance: Uniformly fine, understated performances enhance the sense of the characters’ dignity, and Fonda’s sensitive portrayal—undoubtedly the greatest of his career—established him as one of the world’s top actors. Fonda wanted the part of Tom Joad badly, and got it after producer Darryl F. Zanuck lured him into a lengthy contract by letting it be known that he was thinking of Tyrone Power or Don Ameche for the role, although he really had Fonda in mind all along. Fonda later credited Ford with drawing out his best work, saying that the director, for the most part, shot only one take of each scene and never bothered to rehearse his actors.

The great farewell scene between Darwell and Fonda was shot in this way. As Fonda recalled (to Howard Teichmann) in Henry Fonda, My Life, "We’d never done [the scene] out loud, but Ford called for action, the cameras rolled, and he had it in a single take. After we finished the scene, Pappy (Ford) didn’t say a word. He just stood up and walked away. He got what he wanted."

Personal project: Another important contributor was Zanuck, who made this film his personal project and involved himself with every aspect of its production. Zanuck edited Johnson’s work so well that the producer later won rare praise from his screenwriter, who said that every script he wrote was improved by Zanuck’s cuts. Zanuck took great pains to adapt Steinbeck’s classic—for which he paid $100,000, a staggering sum at the time—as faithfully as possible, inserting in the author’s contract the promise that the film would "fairly and reasonably retain the main action and social intent" of the novel. However, Zanuck did make one notable addition with Steinbeck’s approval: Darwell’s "we’re the people" speech.

The studio chief also inserted such little bits of business and technical touches as having the chirps of crickets added to the sound track in the scene in which Carradine and other "radicals" are camped near a riverbed, and the addition of a prominent accordion part in Alfred Newman’s spare, poignant score—Zanuck considered it the most American instrument. Ford did not object to Zanuck’s involvement; instead he lauded the producer, especially for Darwell’s speech, noting that "the way Zanuck changed it, [the film] came out on an upbeat." It was also Zanuck, not Ford, who edited the film after seven weeks of shooting.

Awards

The Grapes of Wrath was released in 1940 to rave reviews from critics and public alike, and the following year the Academy Awards also hailed the film, naming Ford Best Director and Darwell Best Supporting Actress for her magnificent performance as indomitable Ma Joad (a part that almost went to Beulah Bondi). Fonda, whom most expected to be named Best Actor, was a surprise loser to his close friend James Stewart (The Philadelphia Story), however. Stewart said before the ceremonies that he felt Fonda should win and that he had cast his own vote for his friend. It was later surmised that the Academy, playing catch-up as usual, had really voted Stewart the award on the basis of his work in 1939’s Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. The film was also nominated for Best Picture (losing to Rebecca), Best Sound, and Best Editing. In any event, it took considerable courage to make The Grapes of Wrath at a time when the Hollywood studios, on guard against unionization and attempts to challenge their monopoly, were in no mood to indulge its indictment of capitalism.

In 1989, when it was named among the first movies included in the National Film Registry, the picture had lost none of its power as a social document, a historical testimony, or a work of cinematic art.

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